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USDA Systems Modernization: Management and Oversight Improvements Are Needed

GAO-11-586 Published: Jul 20, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 20, 2011.
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The United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) is responsible for administering billions of dollars annually in program benefits to farmers and ranchers. Since 2004, FSA has been planning to modernize its information technology (IT) systems that process these benefits with the Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems (MIDAS) program. GAO was asked to determine (1) the scope and status of MIDAS, (2) whether MIDAS has appropriate program management, and (3) whether MIDAS has appropriate executive oversight and governance. To do so, GAO reviewed relevant department guidance and program documents and interviewed USDA officials.

FSA plans to modernize the systems supporting its 37 farm programs with MIDAS. The implementation cost estimate is approximately $305 million, with a life cycle cost of approximately $473 million. However, the implementation cost estimate is uncertain because it has not been updated since 2007 and does not include cost elements that have since been identified, such as the selection of a commercial enterprise resource planning product. Following completion of its initial phase of program planning in October 2010, MIDAS entered its second of four phases--proof of concept and system design. However, the schedule for this phase, which was to be completed in October 2011, is now uncertain. While FSA officials report that the proof of concept activities are proceeding as scheduled, they have delayed a requirements review milestone until December 2011 and have not yet set a new date for the design review. As a result, the completion date for the second phase and its impact on subsequent phases is uncertain. FSA officials plan to revisit the cost and schedule estimates after completing requirements definition. FSA's program management approach includes many leading practices, but could be strengthened. For example, prior to the proof of concept and system design phase, plans were in place for organizational change and communication, requirements management, and risk. However, a few practices were either partially addressed or not addressed at all in program plans or in the implementation of those plans. For example, an integrated team has not yet been formed with representatives from IT programs that MIDAS depends on for its success. Moreover, the plans do not explicitly call for, and FSA has not produced, a schedule that reflects dependencies with those programs, and risks are not being regularly tracked as planned. FSA's uneven adoption of leading practices is likely to limit the agency's effectiveness in managing system development, and thus its ability to deliver system capabilities on time and within budget. Executive-level governance for MIDAS has not been clearly defined and does not fully follow department IT investment management guidance. Specifically, oversight and governance has been assigned to several department and agency bodies, but roles and escalation criteria are not clearly defined among them. Department officials reported that department guidance is being followed for monthly status reviews, but not for department-level reviews at key decision points. The lack of clarity and definition for the roles of the governance bodies could result in duplication or voids in program oversight, as well as wasted resources. Moreover, because MIDAS is not being governed according to the department's investment guidance, the department may not be rigorously monitoring and managing the program and its risks, and may not have the information it needs to make timely and appropriate decisions to ensure the success of MIDAS. GAO is recommending that USDA update cost and schedule estimates, address management weaknesses in plans and program execution, and clarify the roles and coordination among governance bodies. USDA agreed with GAO's recommendations and described plans to address them.


Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture To increase the likelihood that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will be able to successfully define, develop, and deploy the Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems (MIDAS) program, and to ensure that the department can effectively oversee MIDAS cost, schedule, and performance commitments, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to develop timely cost estimates for MIDAS's remaining phases, its overall development and deployment, and its life cycle, to incorporate the program changes previously omitted and any others recently identified and develop complete and detailed schedules for the program's current and remaining phases that take into account the milestone delays from the program's second phase and a requirements baseline.
Closed – Implemented
FSA agreed with our recommendation and took steps to address it. After several attempts to redefine the MIDAS program, in February 2014, FSA proposed cost and schedule estimates for the program's four remaining releases that included sunk costs and changes in scope. While this proposal was not approved by the department, it provided detailed information to USDA's investment review board and helped the board determine that the program should halt further development following its second software release.
Department of Agriculture To increase the likelihood that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will be able to successfully define, develop, and deploy the Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems (MIDAS) program, and to ensure that FSA is employing leading practices for program planning and monitoring, requirements management, contract management, and risk management for MIDAS, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to (1) charter and operate an integrated project team that commits stakeholders to the program from other USDA information technology (IT) initiatives; (2) establish an integrated project schedule that identifies tasks, dependencies, and resource commitments and contention between MIDAS and other department IT initiatives; (3) clearly track key milestones, and report their status in the program's business case and on the Office of Management and Budget's IT Dashboard; (4) validate all of the 591 user pain points against the requirements and document the results of this validation, including points that will not be addressed by MIDAS; (5) update the program's management plans to clearly delineate the roles and responsibilities of contractors assigned to the same tasks; and (6) document the status of resolved and unresolved risks initially identified in November 2010, identify and maintain any unresolved risks from that period in the current risk register, and regularly track risks and update the risk register according to the program's risk management plan.
Closed – Implemented
FSA performed some, but not all, of the actions we recommended. Specifically, FSA did not fully address our recommendations to charter an integrated product team, develop an integrated project schedule, and track and report on key milestones prior to the Secretary of Agriculture's decision to halt further development on the MIDAS program in July 2014. However, FSA provided evidence that it addressed our recommendation to assess the 591 user pain points and determine which of these MIDAS would address. In addition, selected contracts providing duplicative services expired and the program developed an acquisition strategy that defined the roles and responsibilities of the remaining contractors. These efforts helped the MIDAS program understand user needs and improve contract management.
Department of Agriculture To increase the likelihood that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will be able to successfully define, develop, and deploy the Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems (MIDAS) program, and to ensure the effectiveness of MIDAS oversight and the efficiency of its governance bodies, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the chief information officers of USDA and the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to (1) delineate the roles and responsibilities of the governance bodies and clarify coordination among them, to include criteria for escalating issues and (2) document how the department is meeting its policy for IT investment management for MIDAS, to include investment reviews.
Closed – Implemented
In response to our recommendation, FSA identified roles and responsibilities of its governance bodies in MIDAS governance documentation. In 2013, MIDAS began piloting USDA's new IT governance process, called the Integrated IT Governance Framework. This framework required MIDAS to report its performance to and obtain approval from a department-level investment review board. In following this new governance framework, the investment review board approved the final decision to implement the second MIDAS software release and recommended to the Secretary of Agriculture to halt further development on MIDAS.

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